3 Thoughts on Search Committees:  Avoiding Split Decisions

The search committee has interviewed five great candidates. Everyone liked someone a lot. Now it’s time to make a decision. Everyone on the committee has a vote and uses it to support different candidates. Now what?

I once did a pro-bono project for a non-profit organization to find an executive. My role was to help the board of directors manage the process and arrange interviews. The board had run ads and had a stack of resumes. The board chair gave a copy of all thirty resumes to each board member. They pledged to spend the weekend reviewing resumes and scoring the candidates.

“What criteria are you using to score the candidates?” I asked.

It was soon evident that the board had not discussed any elements of their decision-making process. While they had drafted a position description, they had not compiled a scorecard or established a method for evaluating the candidates, much less a process for arriving at a consensus decision.

One person does not make most hiring decisions. Formal search committees or groups of decision-makers work together to interview and evaluate candidates. Then comes decision-making time, and the committee learns it was unprepared from the beginning to arrive at a consensus. It realizes it has no plan for what to do next.

Even in the rare instances where there is a single decision maker, they need to think in advance about how they will decide.

Here are three thoughts on deciding how to decide and avoiding split decisions.

1. What is the basis of the decision?

Most hiring decision makers will say they are trying to decide who will be the best fit in the job. But what does that mean? It can mean something different in every hiring situation.

Examine the position description of the role you’re trying to fill. What are the three key things the candidate must be able to do? What do you consider proof that they can do it? What indicates a person will be a good personality fit or corporate culture fit? What additional skills, experience or education would be helpful to have?

When I evaluate candidates, I score them this way:

  • #1 key thing they must be able to do – 25%
  • #2 key thing they must be able to do – 25%
  • #3 key thing they must be able to do – 25%
  • Personality/Cultural fit – 15%
  • Extra benefits the candidate brings – 10%

The goal is not to find candidates who hit a perfect score of 100 percent. If a candidate meets about 70 percent of the client’s criteria, then I want to discuss the candidate with them. Candidates with the same total score, even very high scores, will not have the same combination of strengths.

Often, I discover accomplishments and experiences that will prove to be valuable to the client that deserve emphasis but were not part of the original criteria. That’s why a human recruiter will always be a better evaluator of talent and potential matches than a computer will ever be.

Whether you are a sole decision maker, a search committee, an executive management team, a partnership member, or a recruiter, you will benefit from thinking in advance about your decision criteria.

Ultimately, the right choice may not be the candidate with the overall highest score. The best fitting candidate will have a combination of the right things that make them the one to choose.

2. Who gets to decide?

Committees are great for making group decisions and getting things done. Who are we kidding? No, they aren’t. However, they are the best option when you don’t want purely authoritarian rule.

Every pyramid has a peak. The person at the top of the decision-making pyramid should consider who needs to be involved in the process, why they should be included, and what their roles will be. What is the purpose of having a candidate interview with each of these individuals?

3 Thoughts on Search Committees:  Avoiding Split Decisions

First, set expectations for what the interviews are supposed to accomplish. Help people understand their role.  When asked to conduct an interview, most people expect to examine a candidate’s experience and skills in detail. Interviews are often fundamentally hostile, with the interviewer searching for reasons to say no. They expect to be able to reject a candidate.

People asked to meet a candidate have a different set of expectations. “I’d like you to meet Sally. I’m thinking of hiring her,” conveys a very different meaning than being asked to interview her does. The more you clearly express the purpose of having people meet candidates, the better they will structure productive conversations to achieve those objectives.

Distinguish the roles and responsibilities of interviewers of early-stage candidates and delineate those from the roles and responsibilities of people who are asked to meet with finalists. Think twice about whether courtesy interviews are essential. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that small companies or small teams need to involve everyone in the process.

Some companies feel it is crucial to have subordinates interview potential new bosses. Think about the “what ifs” before you commit to that. What if the weakest performer on the team rejects the candidates? What if there is a split decision? Meetings between a finalist and their presumed subordinates are sometimes better handled in a less formal meeting, such as cake and coffee as a group.

Next, set clear expectations about what their opinion will mean. “I liked the candidate,” may be enough to support a decision to hire. “I didn’t like the candidate,” should require more information, more reasoning, and a discussion about what if the person is hired anyway.

3. Agree to Disagree

Talent shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent involve multiple decision makers. Even when limited to three or four judges, the shows don’t require a unanimous decision. The key to their success is they have agreed IN ADVANCE what the rules of decision making will be. None of the judges expects to accept or reject a contestant singularly.

Hiring committees need to do the same thing. Agree in advance what the rules of decision making will be. Agree who will have an absolute veto. Agree who needs to be in agreement to make the answer yes. Agree on how the participants who don’t get their preferred outcome will handle the situation.

For instance, no one should feel they have license to tell a new employee they didn’t support their hire. Once a candidate accepts the role, they are on the team and should be made to feel welcome. No employee wants to know they were the second or third choice, even if they were.

Examine your company’s decision-making process. Is it helping you hire the best talent available? Or is it hindering you? Are you consistently able to land your most desired talent? Or does your process burden you to the point that you only get to hire the last person standing

Written By
Cheryl Bedard represents the best interests of candidates and clients. She identifies opportunities for success for talented executives and companies and reconciles hopes and dreams with reality.

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